Fineman: The Timid Politics of War

As we approach the fourth anniversary of  "Shock and Awe," I keep waiting for the war in Iraq to blow up politics as we know it, the way the war in Vietnam did a generation ago. That hasn't happened—at least not yet—and it's important to understand why. The main reason: Democrats haven't fashioned a compelling (even to themselves) alternative to George W. Bush's world view. Unless they do, they could lose in 2008.

Often in politics, what candidates DON'T say is more important than what they do. The Iraq issue is a prime example. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton gave the antiwar crowd a major opening to exploit against her, in an interview with The New York Times. But the response from her main presidential rivals was telling silence.

I mean to make only half a joke when I say that the junior senator from New York has spent years, especially since 9/11, trying to morph herself into Golda Meir, Israel's tough-as-nails matron turned military leader. Hillary chose a seat on Armed Services as her main committee assignment and has spent a lot more time at Fort Drum upstate than in TriBeCa downtown.

As other Democrats do, she says that she will vote to cut off funding for combat troops in 2008 if, as seems inevitable, certain benchmarks aren't met by the Iraqi government. But, at the same time, she declared this week that she envisions keeping a substantial—though she didn't say precisely how substantial—contingent of American troops in strategic spots around Iraq indefinitely.

The stakes are too high there, and the risks of regional instability too great, to do otherwise, she said. We need to protect the Kurds, contain Iran, guard Israel, keep the lid on Al Qaeda and maintain close watch from close range on the whole country even as we give up trying to prevent a full scale Sunni-Shia sectarian war.

In other words, we are there to stay.

I expected her chief rivals, Sen. Barack Obama and former senator John Edwards, to go on the attack. Instead, there was studied silence. Obama and Edwards have said nothing so far. Why?

Well, as far as I can tell, they aren't willing to disagree with her strategic premise. "Truth is," a strategist for one of them told me, "almost all proposals anticipate the need for a continued presence of noncombat forces. What she said didn't strike me as all that groundbreaking."

In other words, the Democrats are going to square the circle by fiddling with the definition of what "combat" and "noncombat" mean. A classic Washington solution.

They calculate, as does she, that the route to winning, say, southeastern Ohio, in a general election is to be "tough," which means, in this case, an unflinching willingness to use military force. Contributions from donors who care about Israel's survival and safety are important, especially to Democrats—and an absolutist, America-out-of-the-Middle-East stance is anathema to them.

Will there be a credible all-out "antiwar" candidate in the Democratic race? That's why serious people still think that Al Gore is going to crash the party in Iowa next fall.

The Republicans seem as flummoxed by the politics of the Iraq war as the Democrats do. More of them may be speaking out against the president's course, but when it came time to vote in the Senate, only one of them, Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon, broke with the White House.

Will there be an antiwar candidate in the Republican race? Sen. Chuck Hagel keeps toying with the idea. Polls show that perhaps a third of GOP voters would be open to a serious antiwar message. Totemic conservative figures such as William F. Buckley are among them. There are aging New Right activists who began as youthful supporters of the war in Vietnam but who now are facing the other way. "I'll vote for Gore if he runs," said one of them, Roger Stone.

It's not the late 1960s yet, but there is still time.